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Patient tips I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer at age 41. Why I want you to schedule your mammogram.

I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer at age 41. Why I want you to schedule your mammogram.

In 2016, Sheila M. was diagnosed with stage 2B invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC). At 41 years old and with no family history of breast cancer, Sheila found the news unimaginable. Her journey began when she noticed a lump in her right breast. A self-described “go-getter,” she wasted no time getting the nodule checked out, calling her gynecologist immediately to book an appointment. A series of tests confirmed the IDC diagnosis. In the months that followed, Sheila underwent lymph node removal, chemotherapy, mastectomy, radiation therapy and a second opinion as part of her treatment plan. Now, Sheila is devoting her energies to supporting other patients on their cancer journey by volunteering for Cancer Fighters®. Here, Sheila shares what she’s learned about the importance of screening, breast cancer treatment and survivorship.

  1. Don’t skip your annual exam. I always made sure to see my gynecologist every year and never missed a mammogram. In 2015, I lost my dad. He was my person, and I grieved every day—deeply—for a year. As a result, I missed my annual exam for the first time. These annual exams are important to staying on top of your health, even if you feel OK.
  2. If you feel a lump, go see your doctor. Don’t wait because you’re scared to hear the news. I felt the lump that would eventually lead to a cancer diagnosis when I was getting undressed at the end of a long day. It immediately caught my attention. Even though it didn’t feel like it matched the “textbook” characteristics of a cancerous lump, I didn’t hesitate to tell my then-husband what I had noticed and call my gynecologist. It’s scary to feel a lump, but trust me—it’s better to get something checked out than wait. It’s your health. Get that test done. Make that appointment. Instead of “follow your heart,” my advice is to be practical. Trust your intuition!
  3. Ask if you have dense breasts. Until I had the mammogram for my suspicious lump, I had no idea I had dense breasts or what that really meant. Knowing if you have dense breasts is important! For me, this meant additional testing to get a good look at what was going on inside—including a breast ultrasound and MRI.
  4. Research everything. From deciding on a cancer care team to financial help to insurance questions to treatment plans, research e-v-e-r-y-thing you can. The internet was a really helpful tool for me after the diagnosis. It helped me process what my diagnosis was and next steps. When I saw my oncologist, I felt empowered to speak the care team’s language. When I told my mom and siblings about my diagnosis, I already had answers and a plan. I had a binder full of questions and information.
  5. The process may look different than you expected. My diagnosis required several procedures. I needed a mammogram, MRI, ultrasound and biopsy to confirm my diagnosis. I tried to digest every new piece of information and procedure as best as possible with my husband, son and daughters by my side. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed, so try to prepare yourself for your journey to possibly look different than what you researched or expected.
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  6. It’s OK to seek out a second opinion. Before I started treatment (the cancer had progressed to stage 3B), I decided to schedule a second opinion at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Atlanta. It’s important to remember that your treatment plan is yours, and you want to have a care team that you feel like is the best fit for you. My cancer care team helped make CTCA feel like a place I was comfortable going to and spending lots of time in.
  7. You don’t have to get breast reconstruction. I decided against reconstruction surgery. It was another surgery and recovery that I didn’t want. Sometimes, I use prosthetics. Sometimes, I stay flat. For me, I decided I’m going to love me just the way I am. It’s a personal decision, and whatever you choose is OK!
  8. Nausea may not be the only cancer treatment side effect you experience. I expected the nausea, but I wasn’t prepared for some of the other side effects I experienced during chemotherapy. My body had a difficult time accepting the port, which required a more in-depth procedure than I thought it would be. During chemotherapy, my body started rejecting the medication. I experienced high levels of nausea, neuropathy and bleeding fingernails. I wasn’t a stranger to pain before the cancer diagnosis (I had several spinal surgeries), but the unexpected side effects were really something tough to navigate.
  9. Don’t lose your reason to keep going. The love of my family kept me going through it all. They were by my side during chemotherapy, even though it meant Thanksgiving looked different (I sat at the table while my family took orders on cooking). My husband shaved my hair when it started to fall out. My girls, especially my oldest daughter, helped me get to appointments and through treatment. My love wasn’t selfish. It wasn’t personal. I wanted to be there for the moments. And now, I get to be.

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